Two weeks ago, we wrote at CMP about how China’s central leadership was actively controlling and using the news media — including commercial newspapers and websites — to push its message on the Bo Xilai case. The heavy hands-on tactics, including orders that all papers run the April 13 People’s Daily editorial and explicitly mention its source on the front page, hearkened eerily back to China’s propaganda past, in which the dominance of Party propaganda “mouthpieces” was uncontested. This was also one of the keenest reminders we’ve had in the recent two decades that China’s Communist Party leaders still firmly uphold the Mao Zedong-era principle that “politicians run the newspapers.”
As the Party maintains its stranglehold on the Bo Xilai story, it might be convenient to forget just how much China’s media environment has changed since the early 1990s — even as control, or “guidance,” has been consistently maintained as policy, and principles like “politicians running the newspapers” have been reaffirmed openly by the likes of Jiang Zemin (in the midst of his anti-Falun Gong obsession).
Yes, we repeat here, yet again, our emphasis on Qian Gang‘s Three C’s, control, change and chaos, to describe China’s confusing (there’s a fourth “C”) information landscape.
Control remains in the form of propaganda policies, restrictive regulations, and a recalcitrant political culture of secrecy. But change constantly shakes the snowglobe of the Chinese status quo (economic development, globalization, media commercialization, a savvier population, new technologies, developing ideals of journalistic practice, political decentralization, advancing approaches to control). The result is a chaos of overlapping and self-contradicting factors.
Control is undeniable, but so is opportunity. Which is why we see the constant emergence of public opinion flashpoints in the newspapers and on Weibo; and why we are treated to regular pleasant surprises in the form of hard-hitting investigative exposes by the likes of Wang Keqin (王克勤).
The buffeting blows of CONTROL can often make it seem as though change is constantly in retreat; it can tempt us to the cynical view that those apparent signs of change (like the introduction of open government information legislation in May 2008) are no more than window-dressing for a determined authoritarian regime.
But conscientious observers of China have an obligation to grapple with the complexity, to avoid simplistic readings — including the oft-heard suggestion that China is too exceptional, mysterious or complex to understand.
With apologies for that harangue of “C’s” . . .
China. Control. Change. Chaos. Confusion. Complexity. Conscientious observation.
. . . let us turn to a story in China today that illustrates quite well just one aspect of change in China’s media, the way news reporters in China do increasingly antagonize government representatives over issues in the public interest.
At a press conference on “green travel” (绿色出行主题) organized by the Shenzhen city government yesterday, reporters from four different Chinese news outfits pressed for specific figures on the number of “public vehicles” being used by government officials.
So-called “public vehicles,” or gongche (公车), are often luxury sedans or SUVs purchased with public funds (from taxpayers, that is) for use by government officials. The use of such vehicles for private purposes — such as weekend sightseeing or taking one’s kids to school — is a sore point and regular source of public friction in China.
The questioning over public vehicles was kicked off yesterday by a reporter from China Youth Daily, who asked the deputy head of Shenzhen’s transit authority, Xu Wei (徐炜), if he could reveal how many of the two million vehicles reported to be on the roads in Shenzhen were public vehicles. Xu Wei responded by passing the hot potato to another office: “As to the situation concerning the management of public vehicles, I’d like to ask Director Cai of the Development and Reform Office to answer that,” he said.
The question thrown into his lap, Cai Yu (蔡羽), the deputy director of the Shenzhen Office for New Energy Vehicle Promotion (深圳市新能源汽车示范推广办公室), talked about the various ways the city had sought to exercise oversight to ensure public vehicles were not misused. He offered no numbers for public vehicles in the city.
The next opportunity for a question fell to a reporter from the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily (深圳特区报). As the question about public vehicle numbers was still hovering in the ether, the reporter decided to tack the question to one of his own . . . And if you could also answer the question about the number of public vehicles?
After Xu Wei answered the reporter’s first question, all eyes turned back to Cai Yu, according to an account in today’s Southern Metropolis Daily. The host broke the awkward silence that followed by inviting another question.
The microphone was passed to a reporter from Guangdong’s official Nanfang Daily, who asked again, along with a second question: “Right now, what is the approximate situation concerning public vehicles in Shenzhen?” Suspension was in the air, the Southern Metropolis Daily reports. Reporters began whispering among themselves. Why was this question so intractable?
After the Nanfang Daily reporter’s second question had been addressed, all eyes turned back to Cai Yu.
Finally, Cai Yu spoke up, saying China applies strict management standards to public vehicles, and determined public vehicle numbers on the basis of official personnel numbers (在编人数). But just as everyone was expecting the long-awaited number to drop, Cai instead tossed the hot potato across to another unsuspecting official.
“According to my understanding,” said Cai Yu, “public vehicles in Shenzhen are all managed and allocated by the province. The handling of public vehicles in the city falls to the transport department (交通运输委), which assists [the province] in handling management and allocation. I think this question is something the transportation department can help you to answer.”
Cai turned to his left and set his eyes on Yu Baoming (于宝明), the deputy head of Shenzhen’s transportation department. The room was again silent. “Facing every eye in the room,” the Southern Metropolis Daily wrote, Yu Baoming “did not immediately respond.”
At this point, a reporter sitting on the back row of the hall called out, not waiting for an invitation: “So what is the number?”
Patience was waning.
Finally, Yu Baoming opened his mouth, offering reporters their fourth, and most involved, non-answer:
“Everyone cares a great deal about this question. First, there is the question of how to define public vehicles. Public vehicles can include many different types. One type is the allocated vehicle that people tend to think of. According to national regulations, these numbers are determined by the provincial government. These vehicle numbers are subject to strict examination procedures according to national regulations. Other vehicles are for the purpose of administrative management, production and other uses and are bought without the use of fiscal funds, but they are managed uniformly and subject to partial reimbursement with public funds, for example for daily operation costs, including parking and fuel, etcetera. Therefore, in calculating the number of public vehicles consistent statistical requirements must first be determined.”
Given the sketch of complexity I outlined at the outset, how exactly should we read this story. Is it an illustration of failure? An indication of hope?
I don’t claim to have a definitive answer, but perhaps I can make amends by offering a joke Shenzhen journalists would no doubt appreciate:
QUESTION: How many Shenzhen officials does it take to answer a simple question?
ANSWER: No one knows yet.